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Virginia Democrats Seek Party's Path Forward In Gubernatorial Race

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Virginia, tomorrow is a primary election day. The governorship is the biggest office up for grabs. And the contest on the Democratic side is also seen as a referendum on the direction of the Democratic Party itself. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was a busy final weekend before primary day at Democratic candidate Ralph Northam's campaign office in Arlington in voter-rich northern Virginia.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Canvassers over here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Canvassers right over here, phone bankers on other side.

GONYEA: Northam is Virginia's lieutenant governor. Campaigning with him over the weekend were Virginia's three biggest-name Democrats - Governor Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's running mate who right away invoked the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM KAINE: An administration that frankly is engaged in embarrassing, immature behavior, behavior that's often hateful and discriminatory.

GONYEA: Northam says Democrats need to take advantage of Trump's unpopularity to nominate candidates like himself who can retain the governorship and more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RALPH NORTHAM: We have an opportunity to win back our majority in the House of Delegates.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: But Northam, who's a medical doctor, has gotten the most attention for a TV ad playing in heavy rotation. It starts with his support for an assault weapons ban, but then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORTHAM: Now, I'm listening carefully to Donald Trump. And I think he's a narcissistic maniac.

GONYEA: It's the kind of thing the American Psychiatric Association warns against, diagnosing someone who's not your patient. But Northam defends his language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM PERRIELLO: Thank you so much for coming out tonight.

GONYEA: His leading opponent is former Congressman Tom Perriello, who also uses Trump as a call to action. At this town hall, Perriello lauded the big protests against the president's policies that have happened in Washington and around the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PERRIELLO: But the next question they're asking is, all right, they know how to march, but do they know how to vote? And if we...

GONYEA: If Northam has the backing of the establishment in the state, Perriello is running as the outsider, one who will mobilize grassroots support. He has his own anti-Trump TV spot but gets most attention for an ad featuring endorsements from heroes of the party's progressive wing, senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: Tom's victory will show that America's moral compass is pointing in a very different direction.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: The key for Perriello will be turnout. He needs to energize voters who normally skip primaries. Thirty-two-year-old Joshua Butler was at the town hall.

JOSHUA BUTLER: So anyone that both Senator Warren and Bernie support I am all for.

GONYEA: That's meaningful. That's important to you.

BUTLER: Yes, extremely.

GONYEA: So why?

BUTLER: Because I believe that they are the change and the force that the Democrats need moving forward.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, back at the Northam event in Arlington, one of his supporters was there wearing a Bernie Sanders for president T-shirt. John Clisham is a 53-year-old school counselor.

JOHN CLISHAM: The party does seem to have two very distinct groups right now vying for - what? - people's affection or ideas. I have a lot of respect for Bernie Sanders, and I love his politics.

GONYEA: But he said he's voting for Northam, who he thinks is the better candidate. Still, many Democratic voters describe the choice as a difficult one. Some simply say they need someone who can beat the Republican in November. The bonus - the message that would send to the White House, to Republicans in Congress and to the rest of the country. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Arlington, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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